Lock Every Door : Book Review

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Lock Every Door
 by Riley Sager
★★★✰✰ 3 stars

This is the book equivalent of popcorn. If you are looking for a gripping plot-driven story, look no further.

I think that the best thing about Lock Every Door is that it is an entertaining read. The action takes place over the course of a few days which gives the plot a really engrossing edge.
That being said (or written) I don’t think that this book is a deep or thought-provoking mystery/thriller. I thought it was a lot of fun and I did find the story suspenseful but the writing itself was rather sparse…most of the scenes are there to further the plot and they don’t really give you much insight in the main character’s mind (she is the classic ‘traumatic past+quiet’ type that is all the rage in these new thrillers) and a few of her observations regarding her finances seemed aimed towards readers who aren’t aware of what being poor means. If not disingenuous they seemed simplistic and a bit contrived.
The rest of the characters were cartoonish, but hey, I actually love the old Scooby-doo series so… I didn’t much mind. They are not believable, they do not talk like realistic individuals but the story doesn’t dwell on these side-characters too much.
There are a few things that happen which make little sense in hindsight and I think that they were there only to keep up the ‘suspense’ : (view spoiler)
The reveal was a bit over-the-top but I enjoyed seeing how things unfolded. Again, ultimately, I wasn’t fond of the blatant portrayal of the divide between rich and poor. The discourse on wealth seemed to me oversimplified and exaggeratedly dichotomous. Having the MC think of herself as ‘frugal’ for ordering a salad doesn’t quite cut it…(especially since salads tend to be more expensive and less filling that many other dishes…)
Also, there is this side-story involving the MC’s parents which (view spoiler)

A few positives: I liked the building (its history, the MC’s apartment—with its creepy wallpaper and stunning view—and the gargoyles, they all stood out), I was intrigued by long list of ‘tragedies’ connected to it and by the mystery behind Ingrid’s disappearance.

Overall, this makes for a great edge-of-your-seat book. If you try to make sense of the things that happen…well you might have a hard time buying into any it.

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RESTORATION HEIGHTS: BOOK REVIEW

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Restoration Heights
by Wil Medearis
★★★✰✰ 3 stars of 5 stars

Restoration Heights is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I didn’t dislike it, yet, I didn’t make me feel much of anything. The narration is rather cold, which creates a distance between the reader and the characters, and the mystery itself…well it resembled a prolonged meandering from A to B and back again.
The story focuses on Reddick, a thirty-something, white artist, who lives in a historically black Brooklyn neighbourhood. He makes his living as an art handler, working for the people he despises the most: the rich.
The day after he crosses paths with a young drunk woman, he discovers that she is 1) Hannah, the fiancé of the son of one of the wealthiest family in the city and 2) she has gone missing.
Feeling responsible, and seeing that no one else seems worried for her, he undergoes an investigation of his own.

In spite of Reddick’s obsessive search for Hannah, this story didn’t strike me as being a mystery or an amateur detective type of story. Yes, he ‘interviews’ people, he concocts wild scenarios in which Hannah was killed because of this or that…most of Reddick’s friends tell him to drop it but he is stupidly determined to find the truth. The trails he follows were boring and often had little to do with Hannah.
A large part of this novel revolves long conversations/discussions that Reddick has with his ‘friends’. From gentrification, race and class biases, definitions of ‘privilege’ and or the benefits and limitations created by ‘labels’….these could be interesting interactions. Often however, I felt that I was reading a social commentary on New York —and the United States— rather than a piece of fiction. It was almost didactical: person A offers one view, person B offers another, person C agrees with both A and B…it felt contrived at times.

I love novels that have a great sense of place and time but in Restoration Heights these seemed almost overwhelming. Reddick is constantly going on about Restoration Heights —a new housing development— and even before he has any actual evidence he believes that Hannah’s disappearance is connected to this development. The buildings and Reddick’s various surroundings are rendered in a rather methodical way. Yes, we know what the structure of Reddick’s neighbourhood but other places he visits in his ‘investigation’ but they didn’t strike me as vividly as they should have, especially given the page-time the author spends on them. Barbara Vine, one of my favourite authors, who writes a very different sort of crime, breathes life into her buildings/houses. Given that Restoration Heights is narrated in such an unemotional manner I found that both its characters and its location lacked life.

Once I adapted to the impersonal writing style, it was easier for me to keep reading. I can’t say that I was ever invested in the storyline or affected by any of the characters but there were occasional observations (often relating to a painting) that really stood out.
If you can look past a pointless mystery, or if you enjoy using google maps, well, look no further.
Maybe American readers will find the novel’s setting and social commentary more engaging than I did.

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY: BOOK REVIEW

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

 ★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.”

…and now I am sad.
This hit me harder than expected.

I find it impossible hard to believe that this book was written by Kazuo Ishiguro and not Mr. Stevens. The thing is, by the end, I believed in Mr. Stevens’ existence…
Okay, it might sound odd but that’s just how good this novel is. It made me nostalgic for something I have never known. I was overwhelmed by sadness and regret on behalf of Mr. Stevens. 71raA6p02aL.jpg
Regardless of its author, it is a beautifully written story. The narrative takes us back to certain pivotal moments of Mr. Stevens’ time at Darlington Hall. Through these glimpses we gain a vivid impression of Mr. Stevens. The other characters are just as nuanced and believable as the narrator himself. As Mr. Stevens’ looks back on his years of service, I became acquainted with him. He keeps back quite a lot, especially when it comes to his innermost feelings, and that made him all the more realistic.
This is a poignant and heart-rendering character study that was perfect for a melancholic soul like mine.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dominic West (Mr. Stevens) who did an outstanding job.

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SWING TIME: BOOK REVIEW

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Swing Time
by Zadie Smith

★★✰✰✰ 2 of 5 stars

I feel cheated.
The beginning of this sprawling and pointless narrative promised something. It gave me certain expectations. So, when I found myself questioning the direction of this novel, I told myself that surely, by the end, this would all make sense. Turns out I was hoping against hope.
Maybe, my expectations lie in Zadie Smith’s writing. Among the many peculiar passages I caught glimpses of just how beautiful and poignant her writing could be. Now, however, while I do believe that Smith can write well, I think that Swing Time does not showcase her writing ability but rather it seems an example of good writing turned bad.

This is not a novel about friendship. It isn’t a coming of age, nor is it a portrait of ambition. This novel consists in a series of grotesque caricatures. All of the characters are in turn false, unprincipled and or bitter. These ‘characters’ not only came across as being stereotypes, and Smith seems to ridicule all kinds of people. Fair enough, the narratives spares no one and every single character becomes little more than an unfunny joke.
Her unsympathetic nameless narrator seemed a poor attempt to write from the point of view of an ambiguous and possibly apathetic individual.
Tracey, her supposed best friend, is over-sexualised and is the typical friend who is better looking and more talented than the protagonist is (when will we ever get to read about a more nuanced female friendship?). The narrative uses Tracey time and again, throwing her in as to confuse and irritate both the main character and the readers. She is so illogical and incoherent that I had a very hard time taking anything she did or said seriously. Every-time she appeared I find myself thinking ‘of course, there she goes again‘.
The protagonist is worse than a shadow. She isn’t merely the type who prefers to observe rather than be observed. She is completely feckless. Her stupidity and her naïveté were jarringly unbelievable. I didn’t so much care for her lacking a name but her lack of an actual personality was harder to ignore. Her narrative is needlessly confounding. The time jumps were handled poorly, it seems that Smith wanted to do more than the classic then & now timeline, and in doing so ended up with a lot of odd transitions. The obvious retaining of certain information from the reader was both unnecessary and annoying (these instances rather than generating suspense just come across as being stilted). Also, are we to believe that someone so nonexistent would describe certain random acts in a completely exaggerated manner? Because our narrator loves giving random dramatic descriptions…and has a penchant for the word ‘gold’ .
As much as I personally dislike this narrator, I dislike her because we see from her point of view. Other characters don’t know just how irksome she is and yet….every single person she encounter seems to give her a sermon which consist in slightly varying versions ofyou have no idea/you are so privileged/you don’t nothing bout anything/listen to what I know/I know what’s what/listen to my life story/yadda yadda‘. Very likely…
Smith occasionally does turn her writing skills to do ‘good’, and she offers observations that don’t seem to come from the narrator’s point of view, and therefore did not seem theatrical or irritating. Sadly, she also comes up with things such as:

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her […] I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

What the actual…am I to believe that our ‘woke‘ protagonist would think this? A ‘broken’ girl?! And that cheesy line about ‘a secret she can’t tell’?!

This novel is indeed ambitious…it tries to include as many topical and relevant things but it all just comes across as overreaching. Rather than offering a nuanced cast of characters and believable scenarios, Smith seems to go out of her way to portray grotesque impressions of people (for example when the narrator is on a plane she is seated next to two truck-drivers with ‘bleeding gums’, ‘yellow teeth’ and seem to be rather crass…) and all for the sake of what? I wanted a story about ambition, I wanted a complex depiction of the dangers that words such as ‘potential’ and ‘talent’ can have, and above all, I thought there would be a friendship between two passionate girls...what I got was a series of cruel and degrading lampoons with a few ‘in’ terms & topics.
Massive let down.

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

There is something incredibly endearing about this novel. From the very first line, Dickens draws us in, making us Pip’s confidantes, so that we eagerly follow him on his journey.

The first section of this novel, revolves around Pip’s childhood, and Dickens manages to reflect the young age of his protagonist onto the narrative itself: there is a youthful element despite that Pip is telling us of these events retrospectively, and while he sometimes foreshadows things to come, the element of surprise and discovery is not lost. I particularly enjoyed this first part: the Gargery household is a vivid and somewhat nostalgic portrayal of Pip’s childhood home, however imperfect it may be.

“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small”

The neighbours and routines add a layer of authenticity to the setting and to the story: the relationships between the various characters were always engaging. Miss Havisham…well, Dickens sure knows how to create a compelling yet eerie character. The feelings she evokes in the reader are further emphasised by her household. There is an almost surreal, magical, element to her.
Pip’s growth of character is…not exactly for the best. But, we do see glimpses of his regret, and we are made to empathise with his situation. His newly found ambition, made possible due to his sudden ‘great expectations’ will cause both us and him sorrow. I was particularly saddened by his rebuttal of Joe.

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy.”

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. Pip does inspire sympathetic feelings, especially through his new friendships such as the ones he has with Herbert and Wemmick. I was pleasantly surprised by Magwitch’s storyline, and I was all too glad to see Pip’s opinion of him change.

I was supportive of Pip’s love for Estella, despite the latter being a cold and unlikable character. Dickens, however, skillfully manages to make such a distant and detached character admirable:

“What?” said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; “do you reproach me for being cold? You?”
“Are you not?” was the fierce retort.
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.”

He makes his own characters aware of their reputations and behavior. And Pip too realizes Estella’s difficult personality. He evades falling into the ‘love struck fool’ trope because he is not oblivious to the fact that his feelings for Estella are quite irrational:

“Estella was the inspiration of it, and the heart of it, of course. But, though she had taken such strong possession of me, though my fancy and my hope were so set upon her, though her influence on my boyish life and character had been all-powerful, I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. […] The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.”

It is easy to relate and identify with Pip partly due his intrinsically likeable nature: no matter what he does or do, he never causes hatred or contempt. We are made to ‘feel’ for him even in those situations where he himself is to blame. He is at the very chore of this novel: there is an immediate connection made to him due to very nature of his character. Sensitive, somewhat naive, not always thoughtful, but possessing a soulful mind, he is a fully fleshed individual.
The plot, later on, is not quite as engrossing as it initially was, but, overall, it was a compelling tale of friendship and moral values. Touches of humor lighten the topics touched plus, Dickens knew how to phrase things. I appreciated and rooted for the novel’s nuanced protagonist and the memorable cast of characters supporting his tale.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

To say that I was expecting more would be an understatement.
Perhaps, the kinship I initially felt with this novel was caused by my sharing the first name of its title character. I wanted a story that delivered an array of conflicting feelings in its portrayal of illicit liaisons. Sadly, Anna Karenina only delivered a great headache.
I will not blame the translation, for I approached various ones, and they all seem to faithfully convey Tolstoy’s deliberately repetitive style, or as Vladimir Nabokov would say, they capture the ‘robust awkwardness’ that pervades Tolstoy’s writing. The style itself was not one of biggest issues: yes, I did find it to be self-congratulatory, but, at times, it carried across a pleasing rhythm that lightened the overall tone of the novel. In later sections, the narrative mode is reminiscent of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness‘. Tolstoy seems to be trying different styles, using various techniques, to complete this labyrinthine novel. He is much too aware of his own skills, and I felt his dictatorial attempts throughout the novel. The realism imparted by the story is sabotaged by many inane coincidences and Tolstoy’s own moral agenda.

Levin becomes Tolstoy’s mouthpiece: the writer’s own views and beliefs are performed by this character. This in itself was not enough to make him unlikable, however, the important issues Levin raises and the interesting self-questioning loose their importance in light of the superficiality of his love: his passion for Kitty is preposterous. Despite the length of the novel, Tolstoy does not waste any words in regards of an actual reason for Levin to have fallen for Kitty – and vice-versa – making us assume that it was nothing more than an irrational and instantaneous attraction. The ludicrous ‘chalk’ scene had me laughing out loud: their sudden ‘telepathic’ conversation is much more unbelievable than the telepathic ‘bond’ between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Also, why should we root for someone whose ‘strong moral compass’ is underlined by hypocrisy? His admiration for the country life loses any credibility after he dismisses his own fantasy of marrying a ‘peasant woman’.
Anna…oh Anna. I had such high hopes for her. I sought out a nuanced complex character conflicted by her desires and her duties. What I got was a predictably self-absorbed and hysterical ‘fallen woman’ whose own obtuse behaviour is downright senseless: I kept asking, why, why was she acting in the way that she did, but I never got any answers. We are shown her irrational and ’emotional’ behaviour but we are not given a true insight of what goes on in her mind…(having finished the novel I would say that nothing is going on in there). Her affair with Vronsky is as unconvincing as the relationship between Levin and Kitty. He is barely more controlled than a dog in heat is, so he pursues Anna and she simply…likes it?

More importantly, is that Anna does not offer any redeeming qualities. She manipulates and uses those around her especially through her body language. Take for example how she shamelessly influences poor Dolly into forgiving Stiva: she gives her reassuring hand squeezes and pretends to identify with her difficult situation. Anna is all too aware of her own magnetism which Tolstoy attributes onto her looks rather than her personality. Her (view spoiler) should be viewed as redemptive but to me it simply professed the author’s zealousness: (view spoiler)
Anna’s brother, who predominately features in the opening chapter, is so irredeemably selfish it is almost entertaining: he does not feel guilty over his own affair but he is remorseful of not having predicted his wife’s reaction. His wife, Dolly, is forgettable and easily manipulated. Her sister, Kitty, lacks is a poorly rendered character.
Discussions about gender heavily feature in this novel but most of the time, this topic is considered by men and even when there are female characters present they either remain silent or only offer acquiescent comments. Levin’s rebuttal of a ‘capitalism’ suffers under Tolstoy’s stressing of the subject.
The story is filled by numerous dull passages that serve little purpose, characters who should be unique or at least, realistically flawed individuals, end being little more than caricatures, and, finally, the novel’s own sense of importance is countered by the laughable coincidences and aimless discussions, making Anna Karenina a drudge to read. Tolstoy…dear Tolstoy…your ideologies should not have featured so strongly in your own book: subtlety is key.
The only part I enjoyed was the first few chapters: there Tolstoy’s style is endearing rather than annoying and the characters haven’t shown their poor characterisation.
The improbable coincidences that occur in the story were not the sole cause of my animosity towards this novel: I love far-fetched and unlikely storylines – often prominent in sensational fiction – but I cannot abide presumptuousness. Tolstoy – time and again – pushes the reader into sharing his own views, and I was not willing to do that. How could I take his intentions seriously when he employs the most ludicrous course of action to deliver his ‘message’?

Side note: Tolstoy compares women to food and creates parallels between his female characters and animals…top marks…really.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.

Little Fires Everywhere is a thought-provoking vivid portrayal of a small community split by a heated custody battle. Ng’s style – which reminded me of Ann Patchettis almost prosaic: it has a gentle rhythm; there is a softness to her phrases, her casual observations are always affecting. Ng’s writing is elegant and engaging.

The fog mirrored her state of mind so perfectly she felt as if she were walking through her own brain: a haze of formless, pervasive emotion, nothing she could grasp, but full of looming thoughts that appeared from nowhere, startling her, the receded into whiteness again before she was even sure what she had seen.

The novel broaches many difficult topics, ranging from parenthood, motherhood in particular, to race.

It came, over and over, down to this: What makes someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?

Characters are realistic for they are quite flawed: they can be hypocritical, selfish, obstinate. The Richardsons especially, they all are incredibly self-absorbed. They do not see how truly privileged they are. Yet they are not wholly dislikable: they think, feel and say things that are quite relatable and or understandable. Mia and Pearl Warren are equally multi-faceted. Mia’s love for art, and for her daughter, play a strong role in the novel.
Tensions start emerging between Mrs. Richardson and Mia: their different lifestyles and parenting echo ideas of order vs. disorder; Mrs. Richardson exalts control while Mia is a free agent, and it is only natural for the Richardsons ‘children’ to feel a pull towards this woman, so unlike their mother. I didn’t particularly love any of the characters. The teenagers behave…well, like teenagers. Making stupid mistakes, fighting over nothing…Moody, I felt was written off towards the end. I wanted a bit more of his character, especially given that I didn’t feel like we get a full picture of him. Izzy I liked, for the most part. I was curious of the way she acted and her role as the ‘black sheep’ of the family. Lexie and Pearl were a bit less likeable but they nevertheless showcased depth. Mrs. Richardson is a difficult one. On one hand, we come to understand her ways, on the other, we also see just how false and self-righteous she could be. Mia, well, I understood why she unnerved Mrs. Richardson, but I could also see why Izzy was so taken by her.
Now, on the difficult custody case: there isn’t a real right or wrong, not in my mind. Ng’s gives us an unbiased narrative, that doesn’t claim to know what the best solution is. Yet she is far from dispassionate. We come to feel for both the adoptive couple and the biological mother. Similarly, Ng compares the Richardsons and the Warrens. And within the families themselves we see different attitude and ethics, which in turn creates conflict between the characters.
Lastly, despite the deliberately slow storyline, tension underlines most scenes: it is a thoroughly engrossing novel.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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